10 tips on how to make a good impression when working with South Africans

No outsider can hope to have a true understanding of what it has been like to be South African over the last few decades, but arriving in the country with some knowledge and an open mind will help progress business and friendships.

Being friendly, open, polite and fair will make a good impression. Expect to socialise with your business counterparts, and expect some fairly direct questions about your background.

Black South Africans appreciate recognition for their achievements, a long-term outlook and fair treatment. Asians are industrious, conservative and respectful of their elders. English-speaking White South Africans are calm, reserved, linear-thinking and generally speaking, prefer to avoid conflict. Afrikaners, meanwhile, are much more direct and blunt in their approach. Recognising these cultural differences and acknowledging them and responding appropriately will all help.

What all cultural groups have in common is a long-term commitment to their country’s future and any visitor who understands this is off to a good start. Offer long-term solutions to problems, accept that return on investment may be slow and avoid criticising the way things were done in the past.

Top 10 essentials when working with South Africans

  1. Cultural sensitivity and respect is essential at all times. South Africans work as mixed teams, but each ethnic group is highly individual.
  2.  The business community is tight-knit, so use third party introductions to open doors.
  3. Make appointments well in advance – one or two months before your visit, if possible. Confirm the appointment before leaving.
  4. Expect initial meetings about getting to know each other; relationship-building and networking are critical to success in South Africa.
  5. Deadlines are seen more as guidelines than actual deadlines, so be specific if something is urgent.
  6. South Africans are more physical than North Europeans or Americans, so be prepared for more contact than you may be used to.
  7. Presentations should focus on what you and your South African counterparts can achieve together.
  8. Decisions are arrived at by consensus, so do not expect anything to happen instantly.
  9. Do not shake hands on a deal and then back out; word will get around fast.
  10. Asking questions about someone’s cultural background and traditions is perfectly acceptable.


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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.

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